Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

A Vision for the 38th Street Station Area

Dateline: 10:05 am March 28, 2011 Filed under:

The Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center recently released a report entitled “Implementing Vision for Transit-Oriented Development, based on a ULI panel conducted in February 2010. The panel and report focused on development in two light rail station areas in Minneapolis, including the 38th Street station. Seeing as I live a short four-minute walk from that station, I paid particular attention.

Among the recommendations from the ULI panel for the 38th Street station area are some of the usual suspects, including public improvements to the station such as a plaza or identifying element, pedestrian connections and better streetscaping in the neighborhood, and various zoning and tax incentives to promote denser development. However, one recommendation jumped out at me:

“Hiawatha Avenue could be reduced to one lane in each direction…wide sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks and landscaping, particularly at intersections.”

Did I read that right? Reduce driving lanes on Hiawatha? The NIMBYs will scream bloody murder!

A little context – Hiawatha Avenue is a four-lane divided roadway running immediately parallel to the light rail line. It is a state highway (55) and built like one: although it has a 40 MPH speed limit it is built for about 50, and it is not unusual for vehicles to reach that speed, provided the lights are green.

As one would expect, crossing Hiawatha on foot or bike feels like taking one’s life in their hands. Given 38th Street has a light rail station, more than 100 people cross per day in a lousy pedestrian environment. This was not lost on the ULI panel, but there is more, and here is where it gets interesting.

The ULI Panel noted that traffic counts on Hiawatha are less than 30,000 per day, while ridership on the train is more than 30,000 per day. You can split hairs, as this is like comparing Granny Smith apples to Galas, but it is worth noting that the light rail is used more than the adjacent roadway. Furthermore, for just 26,000 vehicles per day, Hiawatha is overbuilt – there are streets elsewhere in the city with similar traffic counts that are narrower and far easier to cross on foot.

I won’t go so far as to say that Hiawatha should be reduced to one lane in each direction, but it can be tamed without reducing capacity measurably.

We must ask ourselves what behavior are we trying to reward? Cars streaming by, traffic congestion, dependence on foreign oil, pollution, and a lousy pedestrian environment? Or walking, biking, building excercise in to our daily lives, riding the train, driving less, reducing gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, and building an attractive urban environment with housing and retail? The design of the street rewards the former, but luckily city policy is rewarding the latter, but there is much work to do.

Hiawatha Avenue for too long has been a dividing line between neighborhoods. About 20 years ago it was even widened (although the freeway concept was fortunately shot down) to speed traffic in to the downtown. Along came a square peg in a round hole – light rail plunked down next to a state highway with all its regulations and restrictions – the “standards,” the “clear zone,” the “turning radii,” etc. In other words, the goal of the state highway is to move vehicles, and making it easier to cross Hiawatha and access the train is in direct violation of state highway rules.

I believe we can make Hiawatha more pedestrian friendly without slowing traffic overall. It is possible, with better timed traffic lights, to slow the speed limit for vehicles but actually reduce the time it takes to drive the corridor. Then again, if cars were actually slowed, those bothered by that could ride the train, right? After all, already more are choosing to do so.

More mixed-use development, with the right uses accessible on foot, by bike and for train riders, will reduce the need to drive anyway. It is fundamentally important to set a long-term goal for Hiawatha Avenue to be a uniting street in the city, a place where people gather to live, shop and hang out, rather than race along.

We need to start small – make crosswalks a little straighter and more intuitive. Guarantee a walk signal every cycle – don’t make pedestrians press the button. Have the walk signal appear a couple seconds before the light turns green to give pedestrians a head start, and have the blinking don’t walk signal count down the seconds left before the yellow. Maybe crosswalks can even be a different color of pavement. Eventually reclaim the shoulder for on-street parking (they are wasted space), and then add a canopy of street trees and landscaping, perhaps interspersed with on-street parking to provide a better buffer between cars and pedestrians. Add sidewalk cafes. At a minimum, create curb bumpouts at intersections to reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians.

But the city, county and state are broke? How to we pay for it? Let developers help out. They have already proven their desire to build near our light rail stations. Make them share the cost, but give them density bonuses for the added price of public improvements. Better design begets improved property values, which increase tax receipts – everybody wins!

All of these ideas have been tested elsewhere, and should be considered for 38th Street and Hiawatha Avenue. Hiawatha should be a complete, great street, and fixing the public realm is fundamental to that end. It is time to tame Hiawatha Avenue and make our light rail station areas proper urban neighborhoods.

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